Thursday, January 24, 2013

Paging King Lycaon

Fantasy fiction holds an annoyingly singular focus, be it in books, movies computer games, what-have-you. For over half a century, "fantasy" as a spin-off of fairy tales at least in the western hemisphere has been increasingly dominated by J.R.R. Tolkien's vision of Middle-Earth, which is an intrinsically northern-European world. Legolas the elven archer shares the limelight grudgingly with the vampire Lestat, splitting that niche market into high and dark fantasy, and their many clones, look-alikes, copycats and unauthorized spin-offs are all too familiar to those of us of the geek persuasion. There were hobbits in movies long before Peter Jackson's crew popularized the Lord of the Rings itself and pretty, sensual vampires are now all the raging foaming-at-the-mouth, sweet merciless Satan, why-is-this-crap-popular! ... ahem, where was I?

American imperialism and mass-media output play a key role in securing the cultural capital which backs up the primacy of these Anglophone interpretations of old European myths. Even the big dogs of fantasy games, Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf Publishing, wrote their names on the coat-tails of Tolkien and Rice's books and their various copycats have grown into a very profitable industry while hardly ever bothering to look beyond elves and vampires. Some lip-service is occasionally paid to expanding the horizons of our modern fairy tales but this is mostly new-age kow-towing to the growing cultural capital of the Orient, an attempted coup rather than diversification. There are golden mountains of folklore to be mined in old Europe and the near-east still, not to mention Africa and the Americas, ready sources of inspiration which remain largely untouched.

Here are a couple of examples, most striking because while they do have a presence in mass-market fantasy, they've so far never been addressed properly.

The first is a subject near and dear to my lupine heart: lycanthropy.
Ever notice that there's never been a good werewolf movie? The closest that jumps to mind is Wolf which was sadly bereft of special effects and carried largely on Nicholson's admirable knack for sneering and snarling. More recently, Tim Burton's Dark Shadows showed some promise of keeping things in perspective, even if it was just one scene: "Yeah, i'm a werewolf, let's not make a big deal out of it." It even got the werewolf's attack right, pouncing on the victim, going for the throat, tearing and biting and trying to overwhelm its enemy. Wolves don't do jiu-jitsu.
For the most part though, werewolves as they appear in movies are always entirely too overblown to make good characters, gigantic muscle-bound bipeds which serve as a conveniently impressive-looking straw-man for the hero to defeat. They never take center stage and are never given personalities.
In order to make werewolves full-fledged characters instead of window-dressing, they must be given the same treatment as vampires were in Interview with the Vampire. Before fame went to her head and her head floated off the deep-end, before she started having her characters arm-wrestle the devil (i am not joking) and lick menstrual blood out of women to ease their cramps (oh gods, how i wish i were joking) Rice, in that first book, created an admirable world of fearful, hunger-driven, fallible, lost and tormented creatures of the night. It was almost comparable to Gardner's iconic Grendel in portraying the inner workings of boogey-men.
We need a werewolf-centered literary universe which sets them apart as the villainous or tragic figures they could be. The central image of the werewolf should not be the instantly shapeshifting canine incredible hulks but the hermit on the edge of civilization constantly living in fear of discovery, living his two half-lives at the whims of the moon, maddened by hunger and rage, a snarling, dirty, disheveled cornered animal, an embodiment of the dangers of the woods set against society.

The second example is the nonsensical way Greek mythology is used in modern-day fantasy, if at all. What a marvelous visual journey one could make out of the labors of Hercules with modern-day special effects and a Hollywood budget, if only a studio might be willing to keep the Mediterranean feel of the characters, de-emphasize the Germanic chest-thumping with which they insist on imbuing nominally Greek myths and adopt the morality of the Aegean trading culture which coined the very concept of tragedy. Look at Zeus and Poseidon and what-have-you in any Hollywood movie and the main problem anyone should be able to spot is that there's nothing special about them. They don't act like Mediterranean figures. They act like Norse gods with Greek names.

Greek mythology is not a representation of a fringe culture, some obscure reference which would have to be dredged out of millennial dusty tomes in an effort for originality. For centuries, Greco-Roman myths were the fairytales of the entire southern half of Europe, and Christianity never managed to entirely uproot the old stories any more than it could salt the druidic soil of northern Europe. The myths still exist in the collective subconscious of western culture, ready to be tapped. From nymphs to centaurs to titans and harpies, Ancient Greece could fuel series upon series of fantasy books, be they tragic, romantic or grotesque. What Tolkien did with elves can be done with satyrs and the "goth" appeal of vampires can't hold a candle to hauntings by the furies.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Secret World

The problem with TSW is that it's an adventure game.
No, that's not what i'm trying to say, wait...

The problem with TSW is that it's not an MMO. No, damnit, i had this before - yes, here we go:

The problem with TSW is that it's an adventure game painfully stretched on the rack of consumerist marketing to make it look like an MMO. It is a good adventure game with challenging puzzles, well-portrayed characters, clever writing, decent sound, nice visuals and a compelling setting. Unfortunately, none of this helps it become, as i keep saying in my little MMmanifesto, a living, breathing virtual world as an MMO should be.

I suppose in this case i should start before the beginning. TSW's set out quite decisively to distance itself from the crowd of WoW-clones. It was launched through a surreptitious escalation of online hints and puzzles which gradually led interested parties to the game's site, a forum initially known by the game's marketing tagline: "dark days are coming" and which contained precious little actual information about game mechanics. It did however contain a great deal of hints and speculation about setting and storytelling. This is symptomatic of TSW's development conflict. The lead designer is the same from TLJ and that game had qualified him as an artsy auteur in the world of computer games, but as i prophesied in another previous post, he was not the best choice to design a multiplayer game, much less a persistent world. Granted, such a large project is by no means a one-man show, but the choice gave TSW its slant. Tornquist thinks in terms of characters, writing, atmosphere and storytelling, not so much in terms of player conflict and ability counters.

I'm calling TSW an adventure game and not an RPG because there are no real choices to make. You simply progress through the various missions as you would in any WoW-clone. At various points in the main storyline, you do encounter a moral choice, but it seems to be largely cosmetic, as is your choice of faction. Now, when i say cosmetic, i also mean in this case immersive. Here the writing and voice acting really come through along with the design of the factions' home cities to make the choices at least more than nominally unique. I was immediately repulsed by the instinctively power-hungry Illuminati and wavered for some time before rejecting Dragon chaos theory. I have found myself quite happily doing the bidding of my haughty Templar overlords, basking in both ivory-tower conceit and moral high ground. This pattern holds true of missions and playable zones as well. All NPCs have actual personalities, from a bratty teenager grudgingly going along with the utterly un-cool rituals of earth magic to the bored old man halfheartedly sending you on a dream quest while he sits back and watches TV, to the proud vampire lord dismissively tossing you out to fight his own kind. Voices, faces, accents, costumes, everything was given enough attention to make the characters seem genuine at least to the untrained eye and ear. The decor is always fitting and convincing, from ramshackle buildings to dust devils and half-glimpsed monstrous shapes on the horizon. These are all important qualities for any game, but they are secondary to an MMO. It's the gameplay that suffered.

In terms of fulfilling its role as a persistent world, TSW is a mixed bag, somewhere above the utter idiocy of WoW-clones but far from the as-yet unreached ideal of a sandbox MMO. It uses instancing heavily but still to a lesser extent than most. Most of the content is soloable, but players do tend to run into each other and help each other while questing out in the game world. The missions structure is usually good, cutting much of the 'kill ten rats' nonsense and running back and forth in favor of on-site objectives, sequential tiers which trigger as you go instead of requiring visits back to the NPC and lots of puzzle-solving. In fact, much of the solo instancing is justified by the adventure-game nature of that puzzle-solving, the necessity of isolating players just to give them time to think. Puzzles are very varied, ranging from trivia to numeric to visual, linguistic and even audio. Those missions tend to be the best feature of the game and unfortunately they are incompatible with a persistent world. Anything that segregates players is counterproductive.

Not that there's anything for player interaction to focus on. There is no resource harvesting and PvP is limited to arenas which have no impact on the rest of the landscape. There are open-world group missions, a leap above the WoW-clone policy of "everything soloable" but those are rare until the very end game. Crafting is largely trivial compared to the ever-nonsensical fully-usable loot drops from PvE instances. These are a relatively casual and streamlined, requiring no real preparation or organization, only practice and gear-farming. They are nonetheless entertaining, with plenty of both action and atmosphere, in keeping with the rest of the game, but their limited scope makes them a poor carrot to chase.

That's one of the more practical hits TSW takes to its appeal. To the extent that WoW-clones have anything to offer, it's cooperative small-team PvE with a delicate ballet of skills controlling the battlefield. All the grind you suffer through, all the moronic soloing to kill ten to the tenth rats leads up to those instances. TSW's soloing part is much more varied, fluid and enjoyable, but its PvE group mechanics are truncated to the simplistic old tank/healer/nuker holy trinity. In fact, almost all of the group gameplay issues in TSW can be traced to the antiquated idea of "aggro" and the resulting combat mechanics.

Backtrack a bit. One of the core promises Funcom made halfway through development was the essential "no classes, no levels" which players have been demanding for so long. Unfortunately, the perceived need for character advancement to keep players' interest led to a gear-based progression which directly emulates character levels, and the aggro mechanic pigeonholed players into dedicated tanks, healers and nukers in groups. Overall, their attempts at revolutionizing character advancement were a wash because they were not taken far enough. The developers shot themselves in the foot with many smaller combat mechanics too but they're not worth going into here. As one example, though there are immobilization and impairment skills in the game, the vast majority of the more difficult mobs which would logically require those measures are immune to them.

So why play TSW? Just don't think of it as an MMO. See all the strong points i enumerated above. It is an excellent puzzle-solving, monster-hacking adventure in a 3d setting with some other players occasionally running across your screen and as far as soloing goes it has nice enough combat. Ignore the PvP, don't get caught up in instance-farming, and it's worth a fair bit of attention. Most importantly, always, always give every puzzle at least a couple of dozen tries before looking up the answer online. Possibly the biggest issue which scared MMO fans away from TSW is that it gave them what they'd never encountered before: a challenge.

Apparently the development team has spotted its own strengths and weaknesses and they are now refocusing the game into what it should have been from the start, a single-player 3d adventure. They are releasing downloadable content.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

People with guns kill people

Just listening to a televised interview in which some clean-cut macho-man general actually said about Americans "i don't think we're a bloodthirsty people" - i'll try to get through this reaction post without foaming at the mouth.. much.

Along with the hispanic side of the western hemisphere, the U.S. began its history with the most notable genocide in the history of the world. It followed this up by becoming the last militaristic imperialist power. It is still the 'civilized' world's leader in incarcerations, executions and military murder on foreign soil. Americans are obsessed with glorifying the hired muscle of various power-structures. Cop dramas, war movies, police procedurals, gangsta-rap, crime novels - yes, this is a culture with murder on its mind. It is a culture continually looking for acceptable motives to kill, maim and torture to the point of semantically redefining the word 'enemy'. This is not anecdotal evidence, but as clear a behavioral pattern as you could want.

And it's not just about killing. This is an over-competitive culture, an aggressive culture, a vicious and amoral one. It's a culture where children's moral development is crippled from grade school by being thrown into competitive sports and getting bombarded with idiotic catchphrases like "second place is another word for loser", "all's fair in love and war" and "you can't argue with success". It's a culture where cheating and stealing are lauded as long as you can get away with it, where brown-nosing and backstabbing are legitimized ways to "get ahead" - how's that one for the most moronic catchphrase of all? How sick is a culture that constantly pushes its populace to get ahead by any means available at each others' expense and why are we always expected to act surprised when someone gets caught doing just that?

Now, regardless of all that, have a look at this.
It's a picture of a gun. Unless you stare at it until you starve to death, it can't kill you. I'm pretty sure that no matter how many times i blow some idiot's head off in an online game, it won't do anything to him in reality. Believe me, i've tried. If that aggression is really such an intrinsic part of ourselves, then keep it in the land of make-believe and remove it from physical interaction. Keep the violent movies, games and books and address violence where it matters. No more killing animals for fun, no more macho strength contests with rubber balls, no more measuring to see whose assault rifle's bigger.
Guns are good. A pistol is an equalizer between a pasty bookworm and the petty thug looking to cut him up for black-market organs. This does not, however, encompass the gun fetish.

You don't need a bigger gun. You don't need ten thousand rounds of ammunition. You don't need guns in 31 flavors. Normally, if you don't need something there's no reason to keep you from getting it anyway since hell, it's your money, but since your fetish is a danger to the rest of us i'm afraid we'll have to chop off your beloved phallic symbol. You'll have to make do with one undersized pistol for self-defense.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


"Therefore I urge thy oath; for that I know
An idiot holds his bauble for a god
And keeps the oath which by that god he swears"

- Aaron the moor, from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus

Gotta love that character.
Anyway, the villain in that scene is using empathy and pre-existing religious indoctrination to manipulate another's morality to his own ends. In terms of moral development, Aaron is despite his immoral stance quite capable of post-conventional moral thought. His deeds are more than crimes for which he would be punished by a legal authority or flaws in some socially-imposed attempt to play nice with others but acts of cruelty which any objective judgment of fairness would condemn. He derives his pleasure not only from iconoclasm but from breaking the highest, undeniable ethical principles with no pretense of excuse.

Ever seen a politician get sworn in? There are layers of deceit to be peeled away. Do you believe he believes the words he's speaking? Do you believe the higher authority he swears by has any hold over his morality? Does the institution he is entering truly function according to those principles and even if it does is it capable of policing the intent of an oath? Or is the entire farce played out only for you, the viewer's appeasement, because that villain fondling a bible for the cameras knows you're stupid enough to buy the idea that he will act against his own interests simply because he lip-synched through some antiquated social ritual?

What's worse, how much of the population still believes in the mystique of swearing that it is still profitable for social and legal institutions to employ such play-acting to placate the masses? Even worse, why are we imposing this nonsense on more elevated minds? Though there is nothing to stop undeveloped moralities from lying through an oath, truth as a fundamental ethical principle is a very real hurdle for any individual advanced enough to hold an internal locus of morality. Lying is undignified and you are being asked to lie implicitly by spouting some "so help me dog" aberration.

Stop encouraging the idiots. Stop even pretending to buy into their bullshit. If you are asked to swear an oath, preface it with a statement as to its utter pointlessness. Never ask anyone to promise you something in daily life, and refuse to promise even when faced with emotional entreaties. If an individual asks something of another, any expectations should be based only on an evaluation of the other, not on social pressure. These ritual verbalizations act only as a nuisance and hurdle for the best of us, in favor of the unscrupulous and always to the great detriment of the gullible. Stop feeding Aaron the moor tools for social control.

Individuals who cannot follow an acceptable morality of their own accord should be excluded or executed, not brainwashed.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why did Firefly get cancelled?

Hopefully I will be able to restrain myself and not simply enumerate all the myriad scenes which made Firefly so great. Even among 'cult classics' Firefly's fan-base has apparently acquired a reputation for being more fanatical than most, if still short of Star Trek fervor and of far less impressive scale. I myself have been known to pester my few acquaintances with quotes from the show. The chain o' command comes in especially handy in computer games.

The basic factoid even casual listeners can associate with Firefly is "cancellation." Fox didn't even bother airing all episodes of the first season, which had already been shot and edited. While it's normally satisfying enough to simply call Fox executives idiots (their list of sins stretches to biblical proportions) (and that's no News) the truth is that Firefly was not a wildly popular show during its time. Many of its later fans (myself included) only discovered it at some later date. Why?

Partly, it was the admittedly difficult task of advertising. Joss Whedon's prior claim to fame was Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I've never felt compelled to watch given that its selling point was a leggy blonde bimbo kicking vampires to death. The Firefly pilot itself was hardly encouraging in breaking that pattern, given the can-o'-naked-chick they promoted as an iconic show-stopper and the few minutes they dedicated to a prostitute giving herself a sponge bath, but I digress. Firefly was not an easy sell. The show was written to eschew the very concept of grandeur, both in its general pattern and many, many individual lines of dialogue, so it lacked conveniently flashy imagery to use in commercials. There's nothing about it that would match the gigantic form of the Enterprise accelerating to warp speed to bombastic instrumentation. It would have required advertisers to work with the show's crew to put ads out there which would actually capture the show's main selling points of dialogue and situational humor ... and morality - and that's where you hit another glitch, but I'll get to it later. Firefly's only "hook" was it's space-western appeal but let's face it, that's ridiculous in itself. The viewers you attract with that idea are precisely the ones you drive away with witty dialogue.

As I remember Firefly's ads while it aired... well, I don't. I barely heard about it. If there's anything Fox can do, it's advertise itself. They're still advertising The Simpsons for Lucifer's sake, because a two-decade-old show obviously needs to get its name out there. The fact that Fox just dropped the show on the air while only mumbling about it as the new Buffy leads me to think it had quite a few higher-ups set against it before it ever aired. This is no surprise.

Many of Firefly's overtones work to alienate the average viewer. For one thing it refuses to sell any characters as paragons of virtue. They are all capricious or hotheaded or underhanded and the results of these behaviors are shown in various episodes. They are all thieves. One's a hooker. They kill people with no disneyed bad-guy-falls-off-the-cliff routines, and those people are not always entirely bad by definition. In one episode the writers even purposely built up a sympathetic character for half an hour, the type you'd expect to become a recurring cast member on any conventional show, and then had the main character himself, the captain of the ship, shoot the new character. In another episode, a sympathetic character turns on the crew in a cold-blooded attempt to kill them all, just for kicks. In more general terms, the show flies in the face of machismo and hero-worship. The hired muscle on the ship, also one of the three gunslingers, Lt. Worf's counterpart to make a Star Trek reference, is also the token imbecile repeatedly and hilariously making an idiot of himself. The captain is openly anti-religious and the rest of the crew just don't give a damn. Brains are shown as more useful to brawn in every single episode. The crew members are shown as utterly powerless in various situations, unable to save the day. Their big accomplishment throughout the first season was just managing to keep from going flat broke. Despite this, they pass up profit (communists!) for reasons located along various points on the sliding scale of frontier morality.
Is there anything in the above which screams mass-appeal?

Many of the above strong points are weak points not only to the general audience but to the corporate overlords at the Fox conglomerate which, let it be noted, is despite its sleazy "anything for a buck" attention-grabbing also the current cliche of right-wing propaganda. I'm sure they would've been willing to throw their principles out the window if Firefly had managed to blow up into a moneymaking success like The Simpsons after being thrown to the mass-market wolves, but they weren't going to give the show any real support if they could help it and at the first sign of a lack of blockbuster success, they pounced. They were not willing to put in the effort to market the show to its appropriate audience.

Futurama fans, does that sound familiar?

 Edit  2015/06/30 - Going back through some old posts, capitalized my I's. Yes, it really was too much work to press my shift key every time when I started this blog. I rebel against the most random things sometimes. Bite me.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Level Sideways

I have complained in previous posts about the limitations of the outdated (and never truly necessary) mechanic of character levels which is so damaging to RPGs, especially multiplayer ones. What i'd like to focus on now is the treadmill aspect of leveling up in single-player games, using some specific examples like the Elder Scrolls games i've played so far, Morrowind and Oblivion.

Character levels were always unnecessary in computer games because the main benefit of easing book-keeping which made levels so beneficial in pen & paper roleplaying is superfluous for a computer. For single-player games, however, levels are not necessarily detrimental. These games usually involve a more or less linear, story-based progression. You kill a few goblins then kill the goblin boss at level five, then the story moves on and you kill some ogres and the ogre boss at level ten. By the time you get to kill the devil, there's nothing left to do in the game and both you and the devil are level thirty because all the experience you get by killing things adds up to thirty levels. And then the game's over. If you were to remove the character levels from the equation and simply give the player an increase in stats with every enemy slain or every quest completed, you'd arrive at the same pattern. FPS games basically do the exact same thing just by giving the player incrementally better weapons and a better suit of body armor halfway through the game.
There are in fact some games like the brilliant VtM:Bloodlines which removed not only the pointless character levels but also the pointless experience gained through kills from their game mechanics. And...? The sky somehow neglected to fall. Bloodlines played fundamentally like very other RPG, except for being less of a grind.

The main conflict of leveling within MMOs is that a persistent world by definition never ends. This led to the ridiculous notion of an "end-game" class of PvE content which arose with Everquest and WoW, which is meant to hold players' interest after hitting the maximum level. This is really just a continuation of the grind, putting more goals in front of players to chase, with steeper time investment requirements. End-game content simply has higher timesinks by definition. It gives much less reward per time investment but since it's nominally the highest level of achievement in the game, players can be expected to invest that time. See my previous post about character advancement. These "end-game" gear-farming, achievement-farming or faction reputation grinds can safely be lumped in with leveling as a delightful metaphor of a treadmill.

The basic idea is that you give players the impression that they're increasing in power and overcoming resistance as Nietzsche put it by having them progressively increase in levels. If you're level four, then by definition you must be better than those measly level threes. It means you get to leave your starter town and venture out to a cave full of monsters. Again, for single-player RPGs with a beginning and an end, this wasn't too bad. Leveling followed the flow of the story, pointlessly but harmlessly. Multiplayer games, though, should be by definition non-linear, driven by player interaction. Level-grinding became, well, a grind, a chore, a pure timesink. You level up only so that you can kill higher-level monsters so that you can level up some more by killing higher level monsters, ad nauseam. This is the basic concept of the treadmill which has now become intrinsic to the WoW-clone marketing scheme. You never actually get stronger. The monsters level up along with you.

And it is that idiotic hamster-wheel, treadmill, rat-race, timesink, what-have-you, which ricoched its way back into single-player games several years ago because its rampant success online impressed investors and developers so much they felt obligated to cram it down their customers' throats through any product they could. It was one blatant difference between the third and fourth Elder Scrolls games.
Morrowind had character levels. You ran through a few dozen level-ups before cleaning out the game map. However, levelling was not absolute. You couldn't just decide at level ten that you wanted to kill the big demigod at the center of the map. Some places had easier monsters and some more difficult ones. If you tried to hit the east coast of the island at level five, you'd likely get one-shotted by a golden saint before you ever reached the shore. Once you got high enough to wipe out golden saints, you could quite satisfyingly one-shot the rats and imps you'd occasionally run across when visiting the easier regions.
Oblivion, however, used the multiplayer-inspired treadmill. The game would only spawn monsters around your own level, wherever you went: from imps and wolves at level one to minotaurs and trolls at level ten to ogres, liches and demons at level thirty. Even worse, even if you got past level thirty and no new types of creatures would appear, every time you levelled, to about fifty, the ogres and liches and demons would still keep levelling, gaining mainly more hit points so that they still took you as long to kill.

Now, morally, it's obvious that trying to lure players into that hamster wheel is immoral whether it's done in multi or single-player, but it is outright counterproductive in single-player. The motivation is simply not there, on either side.
On the developer side, timesinks became so popular in multiplayer because of the subscription marketing scheme. The longer you can keep players busy, the more monthly subscriptions you rake in. It's morally reprehensible and idiotically recursive since those games are the ones that should not have a linear progression in the first place anyway, but it has a certain internal logic. Single-player games however are still a one-shot affair. Once customers pay up it doesn't matter how long they play the game. All that matters is making a good impression so that they buy the next game, or the expansion pack, or the commemorative t-shirt.
On the players' side, treadmills work in multiplayer because the apparent reward is social status. If your friends are all level thirty and you're level ten, you feel inferior. It makes you want to do anything to get to level forty so that you can lord it over those puny level thirt- oh, shit , in the meantime, they got to level fifty! Better pay for two more months of subscription time to catch up. Single-player games lack that constant competitive prod to get players to instinctively grit their teeth and suffer through whatever grind you force them into.

Oblivion's monster-levelling limits the diversity of the game world, since you'd never see an imp or wolf when you're level thirty-plus, and kills both the thrill of danger, of wandering into a higher-level area and having to run for safety, and the satisfaction of having 'made it' and being strong enough to mow down your enemies. It is not only detrimental to the game experience, which is always true in multiplayer as well, but it lacks any justification, even the purely profit-driven fleecing of consumerism.

Monster leveling is just one way in which WoW-clones have begun infecting single-player games. Constantly respawning mobs, "achievements" pages which prod players to farm said mobs to get a badge, crafting skills which make a show of interdependence to eat up more of the player's time trying to level them all, even reputation grinds having players turn in monster body parts to "level up" with a particular NPC faction have all started chipping away at single-player games' value by introducing more and more timesinks. Monster leveling itself is notable for being such a succinct illustration of the treadmill: you're not actually leveling up if the whole world levels up with you.

Thankfully, players stepped in to correct Bethesda's crass mangling of their otherwise excellent product. Oblivion would have been too frustrating to play through for me without Francesco's leveled creatures, a mod which allows the player to alter the levels at which creatures spawn, maintaining the game's variety and keeping creatures' hit points from making them too much of a chore to kill. It also allows for changes to respawn rates, the day-night cycle, loot drops and i forget what other details which simply made the game a delight instead of a grind.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold

I have not yet watched the hobbit, since I tend to shun movie theatres. I'm somewhat apprehensive about it. Granted, Jackson &co. have proven themselves a class above the usual concern that any adaptation will only serve to discredit the book it's based on, but they are not yet entirely above suspicion.

The adaptation of the Lord of the Rings itself had some glaring problems, all of which obviously stem from the same motivation. For one thing, though Gimli certainly serves as comic relief to some extent in the books, this aspect is played up in the movies. Legolas gets disproportionate amounts of screen time. We get poetically-licensed elves at the Hornburg but no extra dwarves anywhere. There are no dirty, clumsy hill-people leading the Rohirrim to the Pelennor fields. Worst of all is Arwen's ridiculous feminist uprising, usurping Glorfindel and even her own father's screen-time and eating up what could've been Tom Bombadil or Legolas and Gimli on their sightseeing trip with tedious, unnecessary romantic interludes.
It all amounts to an appeal to the lowest common denominator. Obviously the glorious tale of the beginning of the fourth age of Middle-Earth, hope, camaraderie, power-lust, dedication, bravery and warfare... needed some sex-appeal. This brings us back to The Hobbit.

Admittedly, I can't claim to have spotted the main problem myself. I found it as a joke in a webcomic, probably somewhere in the archives of Weregeek, though for the life and undeath of me I can't find it now. Here's the glitch: The Hobbit is very light on pretty people. The bulk of the story features only burly, grumpy, hairy dwarves. Aside from a couple of scenes staying with Elrond and Thranduil, there are no elves. The only humans aside from the inhabitants of Esgaroth are... well, Gandalf and Beorn aren't even humans, and they're certainly not "Mr. Universe" material. Even more terrifying to Hollywood, there are no female characters. Ya can't make no movie without tits!

Well, from the ads, it's obvious they added at least one pair of tits, Galadriel. It's a fair assumption we'll also see an Arwen/Aragorn/Arwen, Arwen and more Arwen interlude at Rivendell. I must concede that it's clever to use material from the appendices of LoTR and The Silmarillon for discussions between the wise which would include more screen time for Galadriel, Elrond, etc. but I'm afraid it won't stop there. I'm dreading the full-on Hollywood treatment, the dwarf company acquiring a fifteenth member, some buxom, golden-haired elvish broad wielding two claymores at once, the march of the sword-princess Leia-something.

Well, maybe they'll compensate for it by doing a good job in other respects. Maybe Smaug will be the best dragon to ever hit the screen, and maybe Mirkwood will be the epitome of the fairytale "Dark Forest" cliche as it's meant to be. There is one scene in particular which, if done right, would compensate for much Hollywood stupidity, and it's not one normally seen as iconic. Other bits like Bard shooting down the dragon, giant spiders, the hobbit stealing from a dragon, have all become much more frequent reference points. As I've said before though, it's more rare to find scenes which capture not only the fairytale feel but the nature of our own fascination with fairytales. Possibly the best such example is the scene at the beginning of The Hobbit with the dwarves singing "far over the Misty Mountains cold" in the light of a dying fire in a smoky room.

This is the call to adventure which sets the hero on his journey. The anticipation, the promise of dangers to overcome, trials through which to prove oneself, a moral imperative to set wrongs aright and a hefty reward at the end, these promises keep us coming back to fairytales no matter how many times we've heard them, and every element is embodied in that one scene and in the song itself. Get that right, Jackson, and I can tolerate more Arwen pandering.

1) Guillermo del Toro. Good addition. Jackson's take may have been more realistic than necessary, since The Hobbit is more of a fairytale than LoTR and del Toro has proven himself quite imaginative in the past. "Let this remind you why you once feared the dark."
2) In the course of writing the post, googling this-and-that, I ran across the best thing I've seen recently. I can't even say anything about it. I just love it. Mr. Dale, you're a were-hobbit after my own heart.

edit 2017/07/22:
Went back to capitalize my Is.
Also I must note how horribly, horribly right I was about the Hobbit movies turning into a pile of rancid effluvium trickled out Hollywood's nether regions, utterly unlike the LotR movies. If XenArwen was cheap pandering to female chauvinism, Tauriel was an utterly inexcusable capitulation, a dead ringer for Jeph Jacques' redneck fantasy heroine.
As for the rest? Mirkwood was forgettable, Smaug only slightly less so thanks to Cumberbatch's voicing. Bard vs. dragon was ruined by more utterly gratuitous rape of Tolkien's story.

But hey, I got my song. Though abbreviated, Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold was one of the few scenes in all three movies played honestly to a fair approximation of Tolkien. Perhaps the only long-term value the flicks may hold is providing scattered visuals to accompany various youtube videos like these twenty minutes of dwarvish singing.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Immer - huh?

I would like to publicly go on the record with a heartfelt plea to those who come in contact with computer gamers. Our families, our friends, our coworkers. We escapists have a request:

Stop bothering us. Don't walk into a room and just start talking at us. Don't start yammering away about some random thing and then act insulted or surprised when five seconds later we turn our heads and say "wait, what?"

Computer games are supposed to be engaging. Yes, that thing we're typing away at, hunched over the keyboard, gritting our teeth, that thing is taking up all of our attention. It's meant to. There is a word which comes up sometimes when discussing reading a book: Immersion. If you non-gamers will kindly skim some commentary on computer games, you are likely to spot that word with much greater frequency than you would ever expect in the real world, in literature, even in theater. This is because the fundamental advantage of an interactive medium is keeping its audience engaged. We, the more or less escapist consumer base of the computer game industry, really do seek that immersion. We shut the world out when we dive into that fantasy. We shut it out with noise-reduction headphones and gigantic screens which fill our entire field of vision, with hundred-click-per-minute demands on our senses.

It is widely considered rude to interrupt someone when doing anything. It is a great liberty to take. It is much worse when the activity in question is designed to exclude even incidental interruptions, when your intrusion undermines one of its basic purposes.